March 14, 2010 at 11:50 am (By Amba)

Last night we rented This Is It, the documentary assembled from rehearsal tapes of Michael Jackson’s comeback-concert-series-never-to-be.  The title has many meanings — among others, the earnest notion that this is our last chance to save the planet — some of them sadly ironic.

I’m hovering right on the brink of really trying to express what I felt, watching it.  I’m taciturn and low-energy lately (among other things, there’s stuff going on, or not going on, occupationally that I’m not free to talk about yet), and writing the tribute that Michael’s last performance deserves feels like both work and exposure of a degree I shrink from just now.  It asks for more from me than I’ve got.

The documentary restores Michael because it shows an artist doing what he’s here to do — working, hard and brilliantly — rather than paying the human price for that in his off hours.  There may be some law of compensation at work:  the life ransacked for the superhuman energy to make the art may be as ugly as the work is beautiful.  The lotus grows out of the mud, and all that.  You can’t excuse geniuses’ exploitation of others, but neither can you expect them to be nice, normal people.  Whatever he did or didn’t do in bed with children, out of a toxic combination of need, narcissism, and entitlement, Michael paid heavily for it, probably ultimately with his life.

But watch him work.  First of all, to move from the outside in, watch him collaborate.  This concert series was set to be an incredible extravaganza, but unlike so many special-effects-heavy lollapaloozas, substance and Shazam! were married hand in glove.  The effects are wowzers, but they enhance rather than crush the emotional impact of the songs.  The new take on “Thriller” will make you laugh out loud with incredulous delight, even as the flying “dead kings and queens” designed to swoop through the auditorium are grim omens in retrospect.

The team, headed by Michael, director Kenny Ortega (who obviously had a warm friendship with Michael), and choreographer Travis Payne, auditioned and chose the best dancers, musicians, and aerialists from all over the world.  (These scenes are A Chorus Line to the nth power.)  The amount of talent, professionalism, and enthusiasm on display around Michael is stunning.  And Michael is so gentle and generous with them all.  Of course, if he ever did have a temper tantrum or prima-donna fainting spell, it landed on the cutting-room floor; this is a tribute, not an exposé.  But moments of the opposite kind were clearly easy to find.  Even when he pushes his musicians and dancers hard for an effect he wants and isn’t getting yet, he does it softly.  When he asks for less volume in his earpiece or indulgence for his need to protect his throat, he is respectful and grateful.  One of the most touching moments in the film is when Michael is egging on the blonde girl guitarist with the Greek name, possibly the chick with the hottest licks on the planet, in her solo.  Michael’s headset picks  him up saying to her (so softly that subtitles are needed), “This is your moment to shine. . . . This is your moment to shine.  We’ll all be right there with you.”

As for Michael’s own performance, well . . . as if he knew it would be his last, it is a performance, not a rehearsal.  Even though he knows he should save it for the concerts, he’s mostly unable to hold back.  At 50, and as frail as we know he was, his dancing is as electric as ever; the stamina seems to pour from someplace beyond physical, part will, part thrill.  Songs from the Jackson Five and Thriller eras are filled with fun and mischief and nostalgia.  And as far as I can tell, little if any of the rehearsals were lip-synched; Michael is singing into a headset, and for all the amps, curiously, you can often understand every word.  He so obviously loves the songs, and the emotion encoded in the ballads is still fresh-cut for him.  As someone who enjoyed but never studied his music, I was surprised by the artistry with which he shapes his voice, especially in the bluesy melismatic codas at the end of songs, which go beyond pop.  I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have done more of that — simplified, stripped down, unplugged — as he got older.

Probably the most breathtaking moment in the film is less than halfway through:  his exquisitely poignant and defiant performance of “Human Nature.”  If ever Michael had a signature song, an apologia, a credo, this is it:

If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
I like livin’ this way
I like lovin’ this way


  1. Maxwell said,

    Sounds great. Just added it to my netflix queue.

  2. amba12 said,

    You won’t regret it.

  3. amba12 said,

    I’m gonna have to break down and own it, I think.

  4. Donna B. said,

    You almost make me feel like I should watch it… but not quite. My fan gene is defective, and I was somehow never impressed by any of the Jackson family. After the age of 10, I was similarly unimpressed with any pop artist, so it’s not like I’m picking on Michael or the Jacksons.

    Two things happened when I was 10 — JFK was assassinated and the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. I remember being confused by the emotional reaction to both events. While it made sense to be horrified at a senseless murder, I felt that a lot of the emotional reaction was insincere. And I simply could not see the point in fainting at the sight or sound of the Beatles.

    Perhaps I’m just a cold-hearted bitch. (Yes, I hear a few of you shouting AMEN to that!)

    But consider for a moment how responsible fans (fanatics) might be for the “human price” Michael Jackson and others have paid.

  5. amba12 said,

    I suspect the fan phenomenon is unavoidable, even though some will always be immune to it. There’s definitely something cannibalistic about it, on the fans’ side, and something addictive and dangerous on the star’s side.

    But, pop or no, the man was a gifted and compelling artist. There’s something very direct and vulnerable about his performances despite all the bravura showmanship. He knew exactly what effect he wanted, and it was effective. If you just plain don’t like pop music and the attendant entertainment values, it could leave you cold, but otherwise not. It’s powerful stuff.

  6. Donna B. said,

    I didn’t say I don’t like pop music, I said I didn’t get worked up about the artists. Two me, they are separate and I don’t feel a need to be in thrall to the artist to appreciate his work. That’s why you almost convinced me to watch it — you talk about the art, it’s creation.

  7. wj said,

    Donna, I wonder if the over the top reactions of some fans might not be akin to other phenomena, such as the fanaticism of various religious fundamentalists. Hence the name –“fan,” short for “fanatic” (which is, if I recall correctly, where the term came from).

    Perhaps there are just some people (albeit not you and I) who have to invest all of their emotional energy in a single someone or something outside themselves. It is a characteristic which can be used for good or ill. Or, in the case of fans of musicians, mostly for neither — just for irritating those who do not share the enthusiasm.

  8. amba12 said,

    Donna — yes, and one of the most impressive things about the film is the level of talent, professionalism, and hard work of the dancers and musicians around him. They just about rival him (the dancers, of course, are younger and stronger), and it’s pleasing to see that that’s what he wanted.

  9. Danny said,

    Wow, this is the first thing I’ve read that’s made me want to see that film–and that’s after my daughter, who loved it, begged me to watch and I just couldn’t bring myself to. Has anyone ever had his or her image rehabilitated so effectively so soon after death?

  10. amba12 said,

    Danny, it’s worth watching. You never want to know too much about any artist’s private life. It can ruin a lot of good art for you. Michael Jackson made good art, and this documentary lets you watch him making it, which is when he was probably at his best.

    You do kind of get the feeling people were just waiting for him to die so they could love him again.

  11. Donna B. said,

    Random thoughts below:

    creativity, talent, artistry are not synonymous. They overlap, and perhaps what we call Art is what is produced when the three overlap within the same person.

    All of us contain within ourselves some portion of the three in varying quantities. More of us contain the ability to recognize/appreciate than contain the ability to produce.

    Ability does not necessarily contain any of the three. The defining feature of the three is a vision of a completed work. Craftsmen can, without that vision, competently complete parts of it — think architecture.

    Solo singing and dancing are, perhaps, the purist arts because they require little assistance from the craftsman.

    Or… would a more pure art be one that brings various crafts together to make a whole not possible with a single art? Is the architect — of whatever — the ultimate artist? From the description, I think this is what Amba is saying — artistry relies upon the effective use of available materials whether they be dancers, musicians, stone masons, or paint.

    Most definitions of art incorporate craftmanship and creativity in some way. It’s tempting to define Art as the combination of them — but mere combination can produce some pretty ugly stuff. For it to be Art, the two must combine in a pleasing manner that transcends generations and cultures.

    And now I’m going to bed.

  12. callimachus said,

    FWIW, one of the business columnists we subscribe to at the newspaper, not at all a M.J. fan per se, recently wrote an entire column about this movie from the point of view of Jackson as a boss/leader of a team of people doing a certain job. He had a great deal of praise for Jackson on that score and held him up as a model motivator based on the scenes in the film.

  13. Michael_Haz said,

    Jackson was a remarkable entertainer. I just can get past the creepiness in his private life, though. And that has kept me from buying his CDs and will keep me from renting, buying or watching This Is It.

    It’s odd, I know, but I think that if I buy a Jackson product I’m in some way winking and nudging and saying that it’s all okay – the pedophilia, the purchased children, the fantasyland back yard, etc. And I don’t want to accept in a performer things that I wouldn’t accept in a plumber or electrician.

  14. amba12 said,

    You’d better listen to Christian pop then . . . and no guarantee there either.

    I have the feeling that if we demanded good character from our artists we’d have a lot less great art. We’d have some. But less.

    When you say “the purchased children,” you mean the children who aren’t really his, but are sort of designer children he had made for him?

    Yeah, it’s creepy. I have to confess that I read and was thrilled by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in spite of his anti-Semitism. (And I’m Jewish.) Since in my experience the best of even my own middling work comes more through me than from me (and often in spite of me), I’ve made a morally dicey decision that I can enjoy art in spite of who made it. But it’s easier when they’re dead.

  15. amba12 said,

    Death is cleansing. It takes away the part of the person that was a diseased sinner and leaves only what was immortal.

  16. amba said,

    Cal: that was one of the most striking things about the film.

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